“Do you know what you evangelicals need?” Pelikan asked me.
“What?” I said, taken aback by his forthrightness.
“You need to stop being so Jesus-centered.”
I was too stunned to say much.
Seeing my confusion, Pelikan explained: “You evangelicals need to be more thoroughly Trinitarian.”
That was the extent of our conversation, but I’ve been thinking about it since that 1991 encounter.
If I read Bob Webber’s posthumously published Ancient-Future Worship (Baker, 2008) correctly, I believe Bob would agree with Pelikan.
Pelikan did not, of course, mean that evangelicals should actually talk about Jesus less, love him less dearly, or follow him less nearly. Pelikan meant rather that we should regard him in his proper context as the second person of the Holy Trinity. If we forget to understand Jesus in his Trinitarian context, we forget the cosmic purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and we collapse God's grand mission in Jesus into one or another form of religious individualism. Jesus came to save me from my sins, yes. But the mission of the Trinity is to restore and renew the entire creation to fellowship with the divine community of love.
In his latest volume on worship, Webber moves into this Trinitarian territory.
The book is subtitled Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative. God’s narrative begins before the creation and stretches infinitely into the future of a restored creation. In worship, my own narrative—my story about the genesis of my troubles and my renewal of hope for a life freed from failure—should never become the narrow frame into which we squeeze God’s story. Rather, our stories are to be caught up into God’s story and find expanded meaning there.
Evangelicals—indeed most Western Christians—think about the biblical story like this: Creation, Sin and Fall, Cross and Redemption.
But in some of the church fathers, there is a different framework: Creation, Incarnation, and Eschatological Re-Creation. Webber turns especially to the second-century bishop Irenaeus and his theology of recapitulation to underscore this way of framing God’s story. (If you need a quick refresher on the theology of recapitulation, see my October 2007 blog post “What’s the Fuss about Recapitulation Theology?”)
If the middle term of our three-part story is Sin and Fall, the focus is on us, the problem-makers. But if the middle term is the Incarnation, the focus is on God, the problem-solver. In chapter 4, Bob's hip-pocket history of “How the Fullness of God’s Story Got Lost,” he writes about the neglect of the Word in medieval Western worship.
By the late medieval period the service of the Word with preaching was infrequent. The Mass was generally reduced to the eucharistic prayers. Because the Word was dropped and the focus [of] the Mass centered on the death of Christ, the whole story of God was not proclaimed in worship. The story was reduced to the death of Christ, his suffering, and the salvation that was brought through the sacraments.The Reformers tried different correctives to this hypersacramentalism. But the Reformation liturgies retained one thing that distinguished them from the ancient church: “Worship now places greater attention on the individual’s condition before God. The vision of God to reclaim the whole world and redeem all flesh and matter through the victory of Christ over sin and death scarcely appears.”
Webber's purpose is to get us to reclaiming this larger vision. He does this by
- showing us from early church texts that the renewal of all things in the Incarnation and the restoration of all things through Christ’s victory was the common theme of early church worship.
- asking us to be Old Testament Christians as well as New Testament believers. This requires that we know the Hebrew Scriptures as background to the New Testament, but it also demands that we imitate the apostles by reading the Hebrew Scriptures as foreshadowings of what would happen in the Incarnation.
- calling us to stick to the basics of worship—Word and Table. We must especially resist the idea that music is a fundamental element of worship, as many contemporary evangelicals have come to believe. Music can play an important role in worship, but unlike Word and Table, it is not of the essence. When people seek the presence of God in music, writes Webber, rather than in the Word or the Table, the accent shifts to the activity of the self in worship ("I will praise you," "I lift your Name on high," etc.).
- inviting us to return to the ancient patterns of prayer that frame our petitions in the light of what God has done. Because this kind of prayer arises out of God's story, it does not grow out of our own needs of the moment or those of our friends. Thus we remember to pray "for the whole state of Christ's church and for the world." If God has demonstrated his love for the whole world, we can do no less than to pray big prayers for the whole world.